By Roger Zotti
Justina Ihetu, daughter of former world middleweight and light heavyweight champion Dick Tiger, has written a skillfully constructed, inspiring, and insightful book titled “In Africa’s Honor” (iUniverse). “It puts boxing history relating to Africa into perspective,” she tells us, “and spotlights the first championship fight on African soil, occurring eleven years before the more popular ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ battle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.”
A man of dignity and courage, Tiger was an aggressive, crowd-pleasing boxer. Born in 1929, he died in 1971. He began boxing in 1955, retiring in 1970 with a record of 60-19-3 (27 KO). One of the most formidable fighters of his talent-rich era, Tiger never ducked a worthy opponent, nor did he ever take a backward step. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.
Justina remarks that “revisiting and pondering over my father’s early years as a young adult when he was struggling to make a living, under the most excruciating circumstances, and without any kind of support,” proved gratifying because “against all odds, he was able to turn the deficits of his environment into benefits and eventually he gave back to his community: When his country was embroiled in a civil war, he did not turn his back on it, but became a voice for the distressed during the Nigerian/Biafran war.”
At the same time, she admits keeping her emotions in check was difficult: “Despite his reputation in his beloved Nigeria, the country is devoid of any visual representations or memorials of his remarkable boxing accomplishments. His stand against injustice and his involvement in the Civil War in Nigeria, I’m afraid, may have for decades cost him his rightful place in Nigeria’s sports history. I believe that were he given another chance, he would do exactly the same thing—and that’s the mark of a true hero.”
Because her father “is unsung and almost forgotten,” Justina asserts, her goal was “to keep his story fresh and relevant, especially to the younger generation who had not the privilege of knowing about the first boxing championship held in Africa, or about Africa’s greatest boxer.” The motivating technique she used—and it worked—was writing “In Africa’s Honor” in play form.
The championship bout between Tiger and Gene Fullmer—the third meeting between them—took place August 10, 1963, at Liberty Stadium in Ibadan, Nigeria. Tiger emerged victorious when the West Jordan, Utah warrior was unable to answer the bell for the eighth round. “If you have to lose, it’s a pleasure to lose your championship to a great fighter, sportsman, and gentleman like Dick Tiger,” the gracious Fullmer said after the fight.
Asked what she hopes readers take away from “In Africa’s Honor,” Justina’s answer is memorable: “It is the determination to accomplish their goals in life, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, race, or creed. As with Dick Tiger, their circumstances should not become an impediment to their growth and success in life but should, instead, compel them to persevere and rise about their circumstances.”